‘I’m going to MASS tomorrow,’ I told my better half last night.
‘Since when did you go to church?’ was her immediate reply. Sadly the Motor Accident Solicitors Society conference doesn’t seem imprinted on everyone’s mind just yet. Certainly the delegates here have more reason than most to turn to God. Their fees from the RTA Portal are set to be slashed, the route to clients through referral fees will be banned next April, and the government is on such a collision course with whiplash it might have a sore neck by the finish.
Then there are the insurers. The companies raise motor premiums then tell you lawyers are to blame. The companies are so indignant about referral fees that half of them look set to create alternative business structures to get round them. They are the masters of spin, with the government nodding along to their every tune.
Two years ago, the insurers got exactly what they wanted when they forced through the RTA Portal for low-level vehicle claims. This meant complex negotiations and a rare moment of conciliation with the claimant lobby as fixed fees were set and the claims process was (eventually) speeded up.
But this wasn’t enough. In fact, as it turned out it was merely a holding point for insurers’ real ambition: the complete removal of lawyers from the claims process. This is, of course, no great secret. James Dalton, head of motor and liability for the Association of British Insurers, spelt it out to MASS members today. It was like going to a seafood restaurant and pausing by the lobster tank to explain exactly how you plan to polish it off.
‘Do claimants need representation at all?’ he asked the claimants’ representatives. ‘In RTAs claims liability is straightforward. There are rules to make sure unrepresented claimants are treated fairly by insurers.’
Rest assured, this got the biggest laugh of the day – even bigger than when the Zurich insurance manager fell off the stage before his speech (if only we’d been at the APIL conference eh?).
The ABI will move closer to the removal of solicitors from the process when, as expected, the government agrees to raise the limit in the small claims court from £1,000 to £5,000. A consultation was held in the summer and a decision is long overdue.
This will, in effect, leave the RTA Portal redundant. There will be no incentive for lawyers to take on cases that are valued at under £5,000 (around 90%, according to the chap from Zurich, once he'd got back on his feet) and instead claimants will have to go it alone to secure these amounts.
We face the very real prospect of claimants convinced they have a case, with no-one advising them otherwise. Crucially, the insurers will face an army of unrepresented, inefficient claimants with no advice and no guidance. Will this reduce costs or increase them? Insurers may find they’re facing more claims, from people with no knowledge of the legal system. The relative efficiency of the portal will long since have disappeared from the horizon.
The MASS members at this conference are actually quite buoyant, despite the predictably horrible Manchester weather. They talk of conciliation with insurers, of working together to combat fraud, of creating new business models to cope with the future.
The insurers talk of nothing but self-interest. But they should be careful they don’t bite off more than they can chew.
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